A Paler Shadoe of Grey

Written for lj's chichiris_chica as part of the fourth round of the dimension shop fic exchange.

-

In the incense smoke, small figures patterns textures play and interweave. Yuuko finds herself counting the breaths until she can no longer smell the sandalwood and beeswax and early evening dew, just sitting and listening until the light dims and the candle flickers in its pool of wax.

A dog barks, out on the street; in her sanctuary she does not hear it, because the walls, although thin, are between not air but time. Still it barks, and barks, and will not be hushed. Voices and the scent of berry pie form the evening that lurks at the edge of her garden but does not cross the threshold; a stray cat haunts the back alley behind the restaurants in the centre of town, waiting for scraps but never venturing between the doors, into the strange and bright and busy otherworld inside.

There was a fire, almost forty five years ago. The mess was cleared away, the garden grew itself out and one day it was no longer there, and the lot was an empty square of long grass. The gateposts are all that remains of the proud fence, a thin layer of ash under the dirt and weeds all that's left of the house that once stood there.

-

Tomoyo hears them lament it sometimes, the old women in the grey hair and late afternoon sunlight: 'Ai, ai, and there they go, another poor fool for love.' And she's thought on occasion that only those become a fool for love can avoid becoming fools of love, made fools by love.

It might be like a song heard once at a friend's wedding, that reminds her of something... Their whole lives are spent reminding other people of other lives. Other fools.

Sometimes the old women think the same thing of course, and she remembers at the same wedding one turning to her neighbour (young man in all his pride) and saying 'It'll be you next, now, won't it?' and oh, how he blushed and stammered.

'No, I - maybe, that is - I don't know...'

And the old woman had laughed. 'Is that so?'

And she had watched the spectacle silently but at that she had laughed, said, 'Oh, absolutely.' But her neighbour spoke too.

And the boy glared helplessly at them, but she didn't notice, because she was looking in surprise at the tall woman standing next to her, amused, merciless, and only slightly sympathetic, exchanging knowing smiles with the old woman.

At the same hour four days later Yuuko arrived on her doorstep with and offer, a request, and her payment already in hand. And yet, Tomoyo was not surprised and her answer was simply 'Yes'.

It was enough.

-

Ninety degrees sideways and half a step away from reality will bring you to a world where the shop never burned, where the moon gates stand watching the street and the metal and glass towers do not loom over the eaves and rhododendrons.

April kanzashi, cherry blossoms and butterflies. Appropriate, somehow. 'There is a certain inevitability in all actions and events,' Yuuko murmurs. The hairpins are elegant and somewhat understated, and she places them in Tomoyo's hair with slow control and grace of movement, two and three and five and six. 'And yet, anyone can change the future, and when that change comes about it will still have been inevitable. A single word, a choice - and it is often harder to simply say nothing and let it change by that mechanism. It is not easy, but it happens all the time.' She places the final pin. 'The trick has always been in changing the past.' And she is finished.

April kanzashi. Flowers, silver chimes, black black black strands, blacker than night, because at night even black shows up as a deeper shadow amid the darkness. Butterflies.

Her eyes are so often sad. It's not something easily noticed, because her sadness is so huge that it can only be seen from the outside, and the outside is one thousand years and half a universe away, in snow and in pine and in the scent of blue roses, smelt once in childhood but never forgotten.

Suppose in childhood there might have been a time when she did not know about death or change and she painted pictures on flower petals and set them afloat and did not mind when they never came back. The monkey tries to catch the moon's reflection on the water but the girl just looks at the sky. Ice sculptures never last.

Suppose there might have been a time when she was a child. Is that enough impossibility?

-

But it's something they have in common, the sadness. Humans are so powerless (they meet again at a funeral) and a single thought, a single cry, one song can kill a god.

The songs sing themselves. Someone else wrote them, words, melodies, somebody played them and somebody sang them, but Tomoyo has sung them too, and she sings them now, and they sing themselves.

It's how it's always been.

Why does she sing them? Because she has no choice. Yuuko grants wishes, even when the price is too great. Why? Because she has no choice. Because she has no choice.

Because she had a choice once, and this is what she chose. She sings. She grants. She does not give.

-

Several hundreds of thousands of wishes and prices, and old prices the answers to new wishes; a shop, a storeroom, a hundred items, dresses, jewellery elaborate or modest; ornaments, furniture, a dream in a bottle and a universe in another, and yet so little of what Yuuko has is hers. Herself. Her magic. Little more.

-

When Yuuko is about to talk about something important, she contrives dramatic lighting and an air of mystery; it may not seem manufactured, and Tomoyo isn't even sure the woman is doing it on purpose, but the trend is too noticeable for it to be accidental. So she sat back on her heels, and waited for the pronouncement.

'Camellias,' Yuuko said, 'Can take the place of a life if the correct precautions are taken.' She gestured with her pipe. 'Shelter for the one that would be dead. A fresh blossom.'

'Do they know this?' Tomoyo asked lightly, measuring a length of ribbon with her fingers. 'It seems hard on the flowers.'

Elegantly, Yuuko shrugged, breathing out smoke with words. 'Every plant has a meaning and a purpose. That is merely part of theirs, but they chose it.' She leaned back, light from the lamp above her head transforming the sinister shadows to somewhat more normal ones, and said, 'Perhaps they regard a fallen blossom wasted. They can be the shadow sacrifice against the snip of any scissors.' Tomoyo, who had just picked up a pair of the same, paused. The careful clip of the cut ribbon was noticeable in the quiet room. Yuuko shifted, hair in strand hanging by her cheek as she picked up the fallen end of ribbon. 'Blue roses, now, their meaning is the legend that can never be touched, the limit that is never told.' She folded the ribbon into one, deep deep cerulean colour; considered it. 'They smell beautiful.'

She shook the flower, a ribbon once again, and stood. 'Ah, I feel like eating strawberry pie! Do you know a good bakery?'

-

'A lighter shade of grey, perhaps,' Tomoyo said. 'Maybe even white. And a darker purple for the roses.' As much as anyone she is in the business of the pursuit of beauty, but she does not trap it in words or pictures, only in memory. Fourteen times and never a dream.

There is a perfect shape in a single blade of grass but even the moon has craters. Beauty is subjective.

-

Incense and beeswax, sandalwood, satin laid out on the floor, early morning dew. Tomoyo cuts the pieces and piles them ready for sewing, a certain sparse grace in the simple movements. A footstep in the doorway and she looks up, smiles in her gentle (sad) way. Full circle.

'It will be finished by evening,' she says quietly in the morning (mourning) silence. 'The first is already finished.'

The tall woman nods, her hair falling over her eyes momentarily. She picks her way around the fabric, bare feet and bare back and hair over her shoulder and twisted, tousled.

This room, this house is not hers.

Yuuko sits. Her hair is almost trapped under her knees but she pulls it aside absently and begins to straighten it, fingers teasing out knots as she watches Tomoyo kneel, cloth flat on the carpet, and hears the quiet dry faint snip, snip, snip...

The light is pale through the window, the shadows small in the corner and rising up the wall. The women sit in the silence not of nothing to say but no reason to say it. Why should they, when they both know transience so well? Yesterday they talked, about memory and music and incense and the small sounds that make up the silence. Last year both attended a funeral.

Words. Words, words, words, words. They are such beautiful, maddening, unnecessary things. They say too much and too little. They are ambiguous and misleading but these two know that and maybe that makes it alright, because Yuuko speaks now and her voice is soft and husky and tired and she is beautiful naked defenseless and smiles and says 'Thank you.' Tomoyo does not ask, because she knows there is no answer or perhaps every answer.

What for? Memory and music and incense and the small sounds that make up the silence. Nothing.

It's strange, Tomoyo thinks, to see Yuuko like this, because usually she is so guarded. She uses her beauty, her body as a weapon, a threat, a sword never quite unsheathed. Never shown. Unguarded moments are rare from her, so rare, and this one no more so than less, although Tomoyo right now is sculpting another jewelled and flimsy diamond sheath, white satin black lace purple blood red blue roses and a paler shade of grey. A pale mirror.

-

Perhaps they met at a friend's wedding. Certainly they have met many times over now, fourteen and thirty one and fourty five and one hundred, one thousand, one hundred thousand. Inevitable, from this side of time.

'Thank you.' Yuuko said it and maybe that was an ending. The songs sing themselves and once over can never be exactly the same. Would you have it any other way? If they were fools they were fools with pride and if, eventually, their story is forgotten, will they complain? Will the sadness be there, if they are alive or even if they are not? It is not such an important matter, not a tale of comedy or tragedy but a selection of quiet moments:

A rose, a fire, a stray cat, light on a silver butterfly perched in black hair, distant voices on the wind, a ribbon. A dog, barking again and again. A paler shade of grey.

A start, a finish.

Au wakare no hajime. Meeting is only the beginning of separation.

A candle to light your way to bed. A story.

Sweet dreams.